I’ve been in full time ministry now for 4 years. I started my professional youth ministry career at a parish in a suburb of Chicago before returning back to Lake Charles to teach freshman theology and minister in a parish. While four years isn’t a long time by any stretch of the imagination, especially since there are some veterans of ministry who have been doing this longer than I’ve even been alive, there is one aspect of ministry with which I’ve become intimately acquainted really since day one on the job:
No matter how hard you work, and no matter how hard you try, there will always be parents who get angry.
It’s a fact of life, an undeniable truth in the world of ministry and teaching: some parent, somewhere, will have something to say about your “lack of leadership” or “immaturity” or “playing favorites” or the “emotional stress you’ve caused.” They’ll probably simultaneously accuse you of being “never around” and “too busy” while also reminding you that “well, you’re not a parent, so you just don’t get it.”
The emails from angry moms and dads are usually long, frequently riddled with grammar errors and misspellings (because they’ve been hastily typed on an iPhone while waiting in the carpool line), and are almost always a direct attack on you, the hardworking, underpaid, overly tired, never not doing something, minister. Something you did to their child needs to be immediately addressed, and if you don’t respond within 24 hours, you’re irresponsible and can’t be trusted in the least, much less with their child’s education or formation. Momma Bears surface to defend their precious little cubs and Papa Bears go on the attack to get to the bottom of whatever issue they’ve created.
And we, the teacher or youth minister or DRE or volunteer, sit there and read the email or listen to the voice mail, and we become angry too. How dare they criticize me of not doing my job well, of not understanding teenage emotions and culture? Who do they think they are? I was hired to do this job, I’m good at this job, ask any student that’s come to my Bible Study or sat in my classroom! They’ve never been in here, they don’t know what I do, and they don’t get this ministry! They’re just an angry parent who thinks they’re disrespectful, failing, always tardy and never-paying-attention little brat hung the freaking moon. Well let me tell you…
And that’s where we need to take a step back and remember something important: they’re an angry parent. They are a mom or dad and they have a child that is the center of their world and it is their primary vocation to care for, protect, educate, and defend that child. And we are someone with whom they’ve taken issue. However irrational, wrong, uninformed, and infuriating that parent may be, it is not our job to attack back. Ever. We must show them more love than they showed us.
In dealing with angry parents, whether via email, over the phone, or in person, I’ve slowly learned a few necessary steps to take to “defuse the bomb” and effectively address the issue at hand. This is by no means the definitive step by step guide to addressing issues with parents in ministry, but I have found these methods to help me in dealing with confrontation in a charitable and patient manner.
Step 1: Read the email three times.
- Make sure you take the time to truly understand what they have to say. A lot of times, there’s hidden meaning.
Step 2: Read between the lines.
- Is this parent addressing an issue concerning their child, perhaps poor grades or lack of engagement at the parish religious ed. program, but instead turning it into a platform to accuse you of something? Could they really be crying out for help concerning their child but can’t admit this, so they’re degrading you to make themselves feel less at fault? There’s always hidden meaning in what a parent has to say. Take the time to investigate the deeper issues that are implied and remember that you are just a catalyst for a myriad of other problems and struggles they’re facing as a parent. Knowing that you yourself are probably not the issue, but something greater, can do a lot to diffuse your own developing anger.
Step 3: Talk to your superior, inform them of the situation, and garner their advice.
- Most of us have bosses (pastors, associate pastors, lay parish administrators, etc.) who need to know there’s an angry parishioner/parent that could be spreading rumors, lies, gossip, and inadvertently tearing down ministry you’ve worked hard to build. Talking to your boss, or a person higher up with more experience, from the get go, and letting them know you’ve been called out and attacked, allows you to share your side of the story first and give them perspective on the entire issue at hand. Hopefully, your boss will have your back and support you in your response and offer advice about how to further respond and diffuse the tension of the situation.
Step 4: Craft your first response
(the one you’ll never send).
- Let’s face it: that parent was probably rude and your feelings are hurt. They ruthlessly attacked you for no good reason and you’re upset. Open up a word document and type out the response you’d give them if you knew there were no repercussions for speaking to them the same way they just spoke to you (or call your closest friend and vent it all out of your system). Say what you want to say and then read it. Would you be replying to them with the same rudeness, anger, and lack of charity with which they first contacted you? If the answer is yes, move on to step 5.
Step 5: Take a day and then write the response you will send.
- My boyfriend and I have a rule: we never fight or make big decisions when we’re angry, lonely, sad, tired, or hungry. I’d say the same rule should apply when we’re responding to angry parents. Unless there is no way you can wait 24 hours, then take at least a day to think about, pray about, process, and craft a well-thought out, charitable, honest response that helps them understand the situation at hand.
- Here are a few things to include in your response:
- Apologize for the misunderstanding. Remember, an apology does not mean you admit fault. It means you empathize with their concern and want to make right the perceived and possibly misunderstood wrong.
- Explain the situation, in full, giving necessary back-story and context. If a thorough explanation takes more than 2 paragraphs, offer to call or meet with them to discuss the matter further and simply give a brief outline in the email. A lot more can be done in an actual conversation than via a message popping up in an inbox.
- Affirm their child. Yes, even if their kid annoys you. Yes, even if their child was in the wrong. Yes, even if the steps you took were correct. I would be willing to bet that most of the time, these parents don’t get to hear positive things about their child, so sometimes this affirmation can help them recognize that they’re not failing and that you’re not the worst person in the world.
- Copy your direct supervisor/superior in the email. This shows that you’re being transparent with both what they sent and your response. Clarity and transparency go a long way in establishing further trust and understanding.
- Extend an invitation to continue the conversation further. This shows the parent that you’re accessible and available and that you want to be present within your ministry and care to make sure people understand how you handle and approach certain situations.
Step 6: Pray for them.
- I’m not a parent (which I’m frequently reminded of by angry parents). But, I remember being a kid, and I remember how difficult I was as a teenager. If any group of people need grace, guidance, and strength to live virtuously, it is parents. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals, so the parents of your teens and students need your prayers, especially since they’re probably more confused and frustrated on their best day than you are on your worst.
If teaching and youth ministry has taught me one thing, it’s how not to be a parent someday. Sometimes the parents are more judgmental, rude, frustrating, and uninformed than even their hormonal, cliquish, and sometimes obnoxious children. But, if we remember that our responses to them in certain moments can be an avenue for witnessing to the love of Christ, then we’ll end up being the bigger person in a tense situation and be the hands and feet of Jesus when He is most needed.